ISEAS Perspective 2021/7 “The South Kalimantan Gubernatorial Election: Oligarchic, Bureaucratic and Dangdut Politics” by Norshahril Saat

Voters put on plastic gloves as they queue up at a polling station in Surabaya, Jawa, on December 9, 2020, as Indonesia kicked off its nationwide elections. Unlike Jawa and Sumatera, regional elections in South Kalimantan did not elicit much attention from observers. Photo: Juni Kriswanto (AFP).


  • The regional election in South Kalimantan (Kalimantan Selatan or Kalsel) did not elicit much attention from observers before the 9 December polls. The focus was instead on the contests in Jawa and Sumatera.
  • In Kalimantan Selatan, the gubernatorial contest was between incumbent Haji Sahbirin Noor, who paired with his former rival Haji Muhidin; and Denny Indrayana and Difriadi Drajat. The Sahbirin – Muhidin pair had always been the favorites to win, having received backing from more political parties and rich businesses than their rivals.
  • During the campaign, the Denny – Rifdiadi team lodged several complaints against their opponent to the local election commission for breaching electoral regulations laws. The main complaint was that Sahbirin took advantage of his position as incumbent to garner votes, including claiming credit for nationwide Covid-19 aid distributed to the masses.
  • While an analysis about Pilkada 2020 generally revolves around dynastic politics and identity politics, the South Kalimantan election offers interesting insights into the role of political oligarchy, of bureaucratic partisanship, and of the electoral commission. Sahbirin only managed to secure a minute majority of 0.48 percent, which now means that the election result may only be resolved by the constitutional court.

*Norshahril Saat is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Co-coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme. He wishes to thank Mr Muhajir Ahmad, PhD Candidate of Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University (ANU), and Mr Made Supriatma, Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, for their comments.


The 2020 Indonesia regional election (Pilkada) was conducted while the country was battling to keep the number of Covid-19 cases down.[1] For some observers, dynastic politics featured strongly in the Pilkada. They consider the contests in some seats to have been a “family affair.”[2] So profound was the focus on dynastic politics that relatively little attention was given to identity politics, a subject that dominated recent Indonesian elections.[3]

This article argues therefore that dynastic politics or identity politics did not feature much in the South Kalimantan gubernatorial election. The tussle instead centered on the role of the provincial bureaucracy and the advantages of incumbency. Although the South Kalimantan (Kalsel) election did not raise much excitement before the polls, the post  –  election competition has become all the more interesting to watch after the incumbent Haji Sahbirin Noor secured a meagre 0.48 percent majority against his opponent Denny Indrayana. There is a strong possibility that the electoral outcome will be decided by the national constitutional court.

The gubernatorial contest in the South Kalimantan province escapes many Indonesian and international analysts’ attention because of their tendency to focus on the contests in Jawa and Sumatera. Focusing on the South Kalimantan election raises some interesting findings: first, it allows for a better understanding of the community, the majority of whom are Muslims living in Borneo. Whether Islam plays a major role in politics here is subject to interpretation.[4] The truth is that while Muslims make up 96.7 percent of South Kalimantan’s 4.8 million people, identity politics do not feature much. Unlike in Jakarta, where there is an economically powerful and assertive non  –  Muslim minority, South Kalimantan Muslims finds little need to affirm their identity. Examining South Kalimantan closely may also open doors for a better understanding of neighboring provinces such as East Kalimantan—where the future capital of Indonesia is planned to be—North Kalimantan, and West Kalimantan. But more importantly, the gubernatorial contest in South Kalimantan offers new perspectives about provincial and regional elections in Indonesia. It appears that the province’s bureaucracy, the provincial Election Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu Kalsel), and the Constitutional Court in Jakarta can play a significant role in determining outcomes. The South Kalimantan contest also underscores the prevalence of oligarchic and bureaucratic politics, and how voters are beginning to challenge them through their votes.


South Kalimantan is a Muslim majority society. Its capital, Banjarmasin, is the birthplace of many influential ulama (religious elites). Until today, the ulama’s role in shaping political discourses and opinions of the populace should not be underrated. The Banjarese — the 10th largest ethnic group in Indonesia — are one of the biggest groups in South Kalimantan. Since the 16th century, the province’s Islamic character has been strong.[5] In fact, the province produced one of the greatest Islamic scholars in the region, Muhammad Arsyad al  –  Banjari (1710  –  1812). He is credited with transforming the religious community in the province as well as the region after his return from his studies in Mecca. Another famous 19th century ulama who made significant contributions was Muhammad Nafis al  –  Banjari. In more recent times, Islam has featured prominently in the province’s political debates. Politicians seeking to make headway will occasionally pay tribute to the Banjar ulama to gain their blessings or to demonstrate a public show of piety. One famous ulama with such stature was Tuan Guru Ijai (Muhammad Zaini Abdul Ghani, b.1942  –  d.2005). Another of equal influence was Kyai Haji Zuhdiannor or Guru Zuhdi (b.1972  –  d.2020).

In the 2019 presidential election, South Kalimantan was overwhelmingly pro  –  Prabowo Subianto. He secured 64.07 percent of the votes in the province (1,467,906 million votes) against Jokowi, who won only 35.93 percent (823,219 votes).[6] To recall, identity issues featured strongly in Prabowo’s campaign. In the 2020 South Kalimantan gubernatorial election, the contest for the governor and vice – governor positions was a two – way fight between H Sahbirin Noor the incumbent, who paired up with H Muhidin; and Denny Indrayana and Difriadi Drajat. Interestingly, in the 2015 South Kalimantan Pilkada, Sahbirin ran against H Muhidin and won by a 0.78 percent majority.[7]

There are altogether 55 seats in the South Kalimantan provincial legislative assembly (DPRD), and the current assemblymen were elected in September 2019. The current term of government lasts until 2024. In line with Indonesia’s electoral rules, a candidate must be endorsed by 20 percent of DPRD members or 25 percent of accumulated valid votes in the previous DPRD election.[8] The Sahbirin – Muhidin pair was supported by 40 assemblymen and six parties: Golkar, PAN, PKS, PKB, Nasdem and PDI – P, or 73 percent support.[9] The Denny – Difriadi pair was on the other hand endorsed by 14 assemblymen and four parties, namely Gerindra, Demokrat, PPP and Berkarya, equaling 25 percent support. Ironically, these endorsements do not reflect how parties are currently aligned in the South Kalimantan DPRD. The table below shows how some Gerindra and PPP, the parties in the current South Kalimantan government, lent their support to opposition candidates Denny and Difriadi.

Sahbirin was the clear favorite to retain the governorship, and his choice of H Muhidin as his running mate also boosted his chances for re – election. In the 2015 election, both Sahbirin and Muhidin were opponents, and Sahbirin won by 0.78 percent. Their reconciliation was expected to heal old wounds that would present a commanding and formidable partnership for the future. Moreover, the pair was endowed with huge resources at their disposal. Muhidin was named the richest candidate to run for Pilkada 2020, with a wealth estimated at Rp674billion (milliar) or SGD$63.2 million.[10] This includes 19 plots of land in Banjarmasin, Banjar, Tapin, and South Jakarta. He also exhibits ownership of posh vehicles such as Harley Davidson, Mini Cooper, and Lexus. Some voters consider Muhidin a generous and down – to – earth man. He said that being one of the richest candidates to contest in the election is also a plus, because he would not have to think too much about getting more money if elected. Nevertheless, how he managed to acquire wealth may be more important than counting the assets in his possession. Muhidin profited from coal mining, a major natural resource readily available in the province, and was one of those who benefitted from the country’s decentralization policy.

However, Denny’s challenge was one that Sahbirin never took lightly. Denny was the vice – minister of law and human rights between 2011 and 2014, during the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presidency. His running mate was also not a political novice: between 2010 and 2015, Derajat was the vice bupati of Tanah Bumbu, a district in South Kalimantan.


The vote count gave Sahbirin and Muhidin the victory, but only by a tiny margin of 0.48 percent. In fact, there were instances during the counting when Denny – Rifdiadi pair was leading. On 9 December, Indikator’s quick count showed Denny – Difriadi leading by 50.39 percent.[11] Charta Politika also made similar conclusions based on its quick counts.[12]

Sahbirin and Muhidin used the acronym Paman BirinMu during their campaign. Though the term BirinMU is the pair’s combined, shortened names, it can be read as “Your Uncle Birin.” Meanwhile Denny and Difriadi used the acronym H2D. Comparing the two teams, Denny and Difriadi’s campaign and policy recommendations were more substantive and encompassing: the duo focused on spirituality, environment and human resource. The pair also underscored the significance of governing principles, as well as infrastructural development. On the other hand, Sahbirin and Muhidin focused on energy development. Their manifesto was “Progress, Development, Welfare and making South Kalimantan the window to the Capital City” (Maju, Makmur Sejahtera Berkelanjutan Menuju Kalsel Gerbang Ibu Kota Negara). Their aim was to take advantage of the fact that South Kalimantan is in close proximity to the proposed new Indonesian capital in East Kalimantan.[13]  Even though the province is a major producer of coal, and exports coal to other provinces, Sahbirin promised to embark on a massive solar energy project, which could provide free electricity for all South Kalimantan residents.

Denny performed better than expected for several reasons. Among others, he was backed by strong national politicians such as Prabowo Subianto and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.[14] As expected, Gerindra and Demokrat supported Denny’s candidacy. Demokrat’s endorsement of Denny was anticipated because the party sits in opposition to the Sahbirin South Kalimantan government. Nevertheless, it was Gerindra’s decision to withdraw its support from Sahbirin that surprised many, since the party remains part of the South Kalimantan government. Reasons for the Gerindra move were manifold. South Kalimantan was Prabowo’s stronghold in the 2019 presidential election, and the move can be read as an attempt by Prabowo and his party Gerindra to carve out a support base in the province, which has traditionally been Golkar’s stronghold.  Moreover, Denny was also one of Prabowo’s lawyers when the defeated presidential candidate fought his case in the constitutional court. Sahbirin’s decision to bring Muhidin into his camp could also have triggered the Gerindra shift. In the 2019 presidential election, the South Kalimantan chapter of the Islamic party PAN supported Jokowi – Ma’ruf Amin even though at the national level, the party supported Prabowo – Sandiaga Uno. Muhidin, a PAN leader, had failed to tow the party line.

On the other hand, Sahbirin was unable to draw enough of Muhidin’s supporters to his camp. Opposition to Sahbirin could be due to his leadership qualities. So far, 14,800 South Kalimantan residents have tested positive for Covid – 19, and more than 570 people have died.[15] Sahbirin styled himself similarly to President Jokowi, with his blusukan (going to the ground unannounced) and reached out to village folks during his first term in government. This however did not have much resonance on the ground. But there could be other reasons for voters’ rejection of Sahbirin: his association with the luxurious Kiram Park, which the locals call Paman Birin Villa, for example. The site, among others, have hosted numerous motor sporting events and dangdut parties, which coincidently, are the governor’s hobbies.[16] Dangdut is a popular Indonesian music genre featuring men and women (especially the latter) gyrating to the beat. Moreover, Sahbirin’s rumored close connection with the generally unpopular coal magnate, Haji Isam, or Andi Syamsuddin Arsyad, did not help the incumbent’s campaign.

Throughout the campaign, the use of smear tactics and the circulation of fake news were common. Denny Indrayana was also a victim of black campaigning. News was circulated that Denny was not cleared of a 2014 corruption case related to a payment gateway when he was vice – minister of law and human rights.[17] Denny said that this was a timeworn case and asserted that he had already been cleared of any wrongdoing in 2015. In response, Denny claimed that it was Sahbirin that had incurred great losses for the province through embarking on failed mega projects. Muhidin was also not spared by Denny’s team, and it was claimed that the vice – governor candidate had a history of being investigated for corruption, too. In 2014, he was accused of paying a bribe to Adriansyah, the bupati (regent) of Tanah Laut, of Rp3 billion while he was the Banjarmasin mayor; this was tied to his connection to PT Binuang Jaya Mulia—a coal mining business—of which he was a shareholder.[18] The charges were later dropped.[19]

Islam or identity politics did not feature much in the South Kalimantan campaign this time, compared to the 2005, 2010, and 2015 elections. In previous elections, there were instances in which candidates solicited support from religious figures to boost their chances. However, identity politics did not manifest much this time since both camps had equal outreach to the Muslim base. For example, PPP was on Denny’s side, while PAN, PKS, PKB were on the side of Sahbirin. While the two contestants did not raise many issues on Islamic matters, the practice of seeking endorsement from Islamic organizations continued. Denny, for example, sought support from South Kalimantan’s Muhammadiyah leaders.[20] Denny also capitalized on Sahbirin’s relatively less pious image by shoring up his own Islamic image. For example, he introduced himself as Haji Denny (having performed the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca) before calling himself Professor Denny.[21] He also described his candidacy as Hijrah Gasan Banua, to mean answering the “call to serve Kalimantan Selatan, by returning to his birthplace” rather than remaining in Jakarta.[22] The choice of the word hijrah is significant; in Islam, it means a religiously noble migration for the betterment of society. The image Denny portrayed contrasted from the numerous videos on social media of Sahbirin singing and dancing with female dangdut artists. Though popular amongst Banjarese, this is frowned upon by conservative Muslims.


However, what is interesting in the South Kalimantan election is the role of the regional bureaucracy. In democracies, the bureaucracy may support the elected government in implementing policies but it should not be involved in campaigning during elections. However, in previous elections, there had been reports that the South Kalimantan bureaucracy was partisan and would assist incumbent governors for re – election. For example, in 2010, Governor Rudi Arifin was able to retain his position with strong support from the bureaucracy.[23]

In the 2020 campaign, numerous reports were made about the incumbent Sahbirin abusing the powers of his office. The Denny – Ridiadi team accused Sahbirin and Muhidin of defaulting on several election laws: all in all committing 107 offences Denny and Rifdiadi argued that the offences were conducted in a systematic fashion and the incumbent should therefore be disqualified.[24] Details of the offences were not revealed, but reports suggested that they were related to abuse of Covid – 19 assistance funds (bansos Covid – 19).[25] On 5 November, Denny showed a packet of rice and a straw bag with Sahbirin’s name written on them to the media as he made a complaint to the South Kalimantan election supervisory body (Bawaslu). He was making inferences that Covid – 19 aid was being politicized to garner votes in the election.[26] The South Kalimantan Bawaslu squashed the claims, citing that no infringement of electoral rules had happened. Denny then made a report at the Bawaslu national level, but on 25 November, a few days before the polls, the national election supervisory agency issued a statement rejecting Denny’s claim of electoral fraud and said that there was not enough evidence to disqualify Sahbirin and Muhidin.[27] Its contention: only one of the reported abuses was conducted after Sahbirin was named a gubernatorial candidate, thus it did not meet the requirement of “structured” and “massive” fraud. Denny’s legal team remained optimistic, sharing that there were two charges against Sahbirin: the first was abuse of power as governor for electoral advantage, and the second, structural, systematic, and massive fraud. The election commission only dismissed the second complaint but did not issue any ruling on the first.[28]


The Denny – Difriadi team is now taking the fight at the constitutional court. The latest is that Denny’s team claims that there were voting irregularities in some districts which recorded 100 percent voter turnout, whereas on average, only 50 percent of voters turned out in the province.[29] Throughout the campaign, Denny and Difriadi had to overcome the resources that were at the incumbent’s and his running mate’s disposal. Whatever the outcome, the pair can claim moral victory, given the small victory margin the incumbent managed to achieve. Moreover, although the incumbent is backed by a majority of the political parties in the provincial parliament (DPRD Provinsi), and by a majority of the assemblymen, he failed to achieve a convincing victory.

Denny Indrayana has revolutionized politics in South Kalimantan, bringing the rule of law into serious play. Sahbirin – Muhidin’s marginal victory shows that voters are not decisively influenced by money, oligarchic, and bureaucratic politics. The contest in South Kalimantan did not end with the polling but is in fact just beginning. It is reminiscent of the 2019 presidential election when the losing candidate Prabowo brought the issue to court, even though the margin of victory for Jokowi was much bigger than in this case. Only time will tell whether Sahbirin will seek reconciliation with Denny, as Jokowi did with Prabowo by recruiting him into his cabinet. As mentioned, Sahbirin looks up to Jokowi, while Denny is a Prabowo ally. There was a precedent to this possibility; in 2016, Sahbirin and Muhidin were competing with each other, but came together in 2020. While the governance setup at the provincial level may be different from that at the national level, such that the provincial governor does not have a cabinet to form, and instead picks career bureaucrats as part of the administration, all eyes are on how the gubernatorial election in 2025 will pan out.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/7, 28 January 2021.


[1] In total, nine provinces, 224 districts and 37 cities held polls concurrently. The closely watched gubernatorial contests were for West Sumatera, Riau Islands, and Jambi provinces. Surabaya (East Jawa), Medan (North Sumatera), Batam (Riau), and Surakarta (Central Jawa) also witnessed fierce contests for the mayoral posts.

[2] The Economist, “Indonesia politics is becoming a family affair,” 3 December 2020. Gibram Rakabuming Raka, the son of Indonesian president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) ran in the Surakarta mayoral election. Jokowi’s son – in – law, Bobby Nasution, competed for the mayoral election in Medan. In the same vein, the daughter of vice president Ma’ruf Amin, Siti Nur Azizah, ran for the mayoral contest in South Tanggerang against the niece of the defence minister Prabowo Subianto, Rahayu Saraswati Djojohadikusumo. See also Marchip Irfan Gorbiano, “Competitive South Tangerang election takes national spotlight,” The Jakarta Post, 5 December 2020, – south – tangerang – election – takes – national – spotlight.html

[3] In the heated 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial contest, scholars observed that Indonesia was experiencing a “conservative” turn. In that election, the incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) was defeated, partly due to smear campaign attacking his religion and ethnicity. He was later jailed for blasphemy. In the run up to the 2019 presidential election, the focus on identity politics also outweighed other issues. After Jokowi’s commitment to Islam was constantly casted in the spotlight by his opponents, he selected controversial cleric Ma’ruf Amin to be his running mate, and the pair eventually won. While identity politics apply to national and Jakarta politics, a deeper analysis about how it shapes political discourses in the region, especially in Muslim dominant provinces, cities or districts, remain wanting. 

[4] Especially when Muslims in Jawa and Sumatera are often deemed to have become more conservative since the fall of the Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998.

[5] Mujiburrahman, “Islamic Theological Texts and Contexts in Banjarese Society: An Overview of the Existing Studies,” Southeast Asian Studies, Vol 3(3), December 2014: 611 – 641.

[6] See Komisi Pemilihan Umum, – suara/

[7] Sahbirin’s running mate then was H Rudy Resnawan.

[8] In this case, referring to the 2019 election.

[9] Sukarli, “Sahbirin – Muhidin daftar ke KPU Kalsel Didikung Sembilan Parpol,” Antara, 5 September 2020.

[10] Tribun –, “Siapa Haji Muhidin? Calin ke Daerah Terkaya di Indonesia, harta Rp 774 Miliar,” 4 December 2020, – haji – muhidin – calon – kepala – daerah – terkaya – di – indonesia – punya – harta – rp – 674 – miliar

[11] Eko Ari Wibowo, “Update Quick Count Indikator di Pilkada Kalsel: Denny Indriyana Unggul Tipis,” Tempo, 9 December 2020. – quick – count – indikator – di – pilkada – kalsel – denny – indrayana – unggul – tipis/full&view=ok

[12 Eko Ari Wibowo, “Quick Count Charta politika di Pilkada Kalsel: Denny Indrayana Unggul 52 persen,” Tempo, 9 December 2020, – count – charta – politika – di – pilkada – kalsel – denny – indrayana – unggul – 52 – persen/full&view=ok 

[13] Alpri Widianjono, “ Pilgub Kalsel 2020, Perbedaan Data Bikin Suasana Debat Paman BirinMu dan H2D Menghangat,” Banjarmasin Post, 20 November 2020, – kalsel – 2020 – perbedaan – data – bikin – suasana – debat – paman – birinmu – dan – h2d – menghangat

[14] Tempo, “Pilkada Kalsel: Denny Indrayana Nomor 2, Sahbirin Nomor 1” 24 September 2020.

[15] See website for Covid – 19 pandemic,

[16 Jumarto Yulianus, “Ulang Tahun Kalimantan Selatan Demeriahkan Pesta Rakyat,” Kompas, 9 August 2018, – tahun – kalimantan – selatan – dimeriahkan – pesta – rakyat/

[17] Denny Susanto, “Denny Indrayana Tertimpa Kampanye Hitam di Kalsel,” Media Indonesia, 17 November 2020, – indrayana – tertimpa – kampanye – hitam – di – kalsel

[18] Indonesia Corruption Watch, “Calon Wakil Gubernur Kalimantan Selatan –  H. Muhidin,” 7 December 2020, See also Jakarta Post, “Dossier of Banjarmasin mayor submitted,” 14 March 2014.

[19] Still, money politics does not seem to be the main contention in this election, and there were no major reports of such abuses happening on a large scale.

[20], “Sowan ke Muhammadiyah Kalsel, Denny Indrayana Minta Doa Restu Maju Pilkada 2020m” 20 August 2020. However, whether this is advantageous to Denny’s campaign remains questionable, since South Kalimantan is generally pro – NU.

[21] He is still a law professor at UGM, Yogyakarta.

[22] Kumparan, “Denny Indrayana – Difriadi: Hijrah Gasan Banua, Kekayaan Alam Kalsel Akan Kembali,” 20 August 2020.

[23] LIPI, “Relasi Birokrasi dan Politik di Kalimantan Selatan,” – lokal/576 – relasi – birokrasi – dan – politik – di – kalimantan – selatan.html . However, such finding was not extended to the mayoral contests at the district level.

[24] Antara, “Denny Indrayana Laporkan Sahbirin Noor – Muhidin Ke Bawaslu Kalsel,” 3 November 2020.

[25] Bangun Santoso and Willy Hidayat, “Lanjut ‘Perang’ di MK, Denny Indrayana Gandeng Eks Jubir KPK dan Mantan ICW,, 22 December 2020, – perang – di – mk – denny – indrayana – gandeng – eks – jubir – kpk – dan – mantan – icw

[26] See Kompass TV report, “Cagub Kalsel Laporkan Petahana dengan Dugaan 107 Persitiwa Pelanggaran Polkada,” 5 November 2020,

[27] Yunan Tanjung, “Tak cukup bukti, Bawaslu RI Tolak Laporan Denny Indrayana,”, 26 November 2020.

[28] Denny Susanto, “Bawaslu Tolak Banding Denny Indrayana,” Nusantara,  27 November 2020, – tolak – banding – denny – indrayana

[29] Antara News, “Denny Indrayana curigai kejanggalan perhitungan suara Pilkada Kalsel,” 12 December 2020, – indrayana – curigai – kejanggalan – penghitungan – suara – pilkada – kalsel

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